House II: The Second Story feels like a movie that was made to justify a cartoon spin-off, except they forgot to make the cartoon spin-off.
House II: The Second Story (1987)
House II is about two friends who move into a magical mansion with doorways that lead to other dimensions and other times. Hidden within the walls of the house is the legendary crystal skull, an artifact of vague power that “the forces of evil” are always trying to steal. The zombie cowboy Gramps provides the hapless heroes with advice and support as they traverse these weird worlds, keeping the crystal skull safe from cavemen, Aztec priests and the big boss villain: Another zombie cowboy voiced by Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget.
This thing is a cartoon, plain and simple. And jeez, man, it’s actually really fun once you make your peace with it.
Despite a PG-13 rating, House II is almost 100% a kid’s film. All the scares are tempered with a nonstop barrage of zany humor (mostly slapstick) and the violence is appropriately neutered when necessary (a caveman gets eaten by a mammoth rat but it happens off screen, bad guys fall into dark pits, mummies crumble into dust when shot, etc). The most risque thing about the film is the alcohol abuse, which is pretty rampant. Had all the liquor been eliminated, this would’ve been a PG flick easy.
The pacing of House II feels like three or four episodes of a TV show stitched together to fill an hour and a half. We’ve all seen “movies” like that at the video store. Of course, this wasn’t actually made like that… it just wound up being like that. Somehow.
Basically, the two buddies, Jesse and Charlie (Arye Gross and Jonathan Stark) move into the house, learn about the crystal skull, dig up Gramps (Royal Dano) and once all that setup is out of the way, it’s just one bizarre adventure after another until time runs out.
A caveman steals the skull and takes it back to a dinosaur dimension and the two have to get it back, fighting off stop-motion monsters along the way. Aztec priests steal the skull and take it to their subterannean temple and the heroes have to get it back with the help of John Ratzenberger (“Electrician and Adventurer”), resulting in a sword battle amidst a booby-trapped maze. The main villain of the film, the zombie cowboy Slim (voiced by Frank Welker) steals the skull and they have to follow him to the Old West for the final showdown.
There isn’t really an ongoing storyline to follow throughout the film, it’s just a series of misadventures with bookending sequences added to try and provide context and closure. There is a small gesture of a subplot at the start of the film involving Jesse’s girlfriend (Lar Park Lincoln), a record deal and a misunderstanding… but before the halfway point, Bill Maher shows up and ushers all the unnecessary characters out of the film. No really. Bill Maher.
With each adventure, Jesse and Charlie pick up new sidekick characters who you can easily see rounding out a cartoon cast. There’s the unnamed Aztec girl who appears to have a crush on Jesse but doesn’t like Charlie; you can see the “love triangle” subplot that would fester through a 13-episode Saturday morning cartoon series right now, can’t you? There are also two comedy relief animal sidekicks: a baby pterodactyl and a weird puppy-caterpillar-thing. Easily marketable as plush dolls and stickers. John Ratzenberger’s character also seemed like an easy inclusion as a recurring ally; he even gives them his card before leaving so they can call him back if they ever need his services again.
This movie is just… baffling. It seems obvious to everyone that House II was meant to pitch an animated series. Well, obvious to everyone but the people who made it, I guess. It’s actually a really good kid’s movie, loaded with special effects and action with very few moments of downtime. It’s a stupid movie with thin characters and inexplicable pacing, but as a kid I loved it. I don’t agree with Jamie Kennedy from Scream 2 and still think the original House is a better movie, and much more of a horror movie than this, but I can’t bring myself to hate House II.